It’s not often that an artist’s creative hero becomes a peer. In Esmaa Mohamoud’s case, it was a dream within reach. After idolizing and even meeting feminist multimedia artist Suzy Lake in London, Ontario, Mohamoud would find herself rubbing shoulders with her years later at the Royal Ontario Museum’s launch of “Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art”, where the young artist’s work was featured. Making the reacquaintance of an (iconic) artist she looks up to—this time as a patron of her work—is just a single fragment of Mohamoud’s impressive rise as one of Canada’s most visionary artists.
In addition to showing at the ROM this past January, the 25-year-old artist has also exhibited her art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as in Miami and Los Angeles. Known for her large-scale installations, often multimedia involving industrial materials, Mohamoud asks difficult questions through her work. “When I create an exhibit,” says Mohamoud, “I am communicating through objects—how they can change in different spaces.” Wearing a grey sweatshirt and blue nail polish, Mohamoud gestures at the blank walls inside Georgia Scherman Projects. The Toronto gallery represents the Canadian artist, and is planning a show dedicated to her work which will open next spring.
In One of the Boys—arguably Mohamoud’s most recognizable work to date—she collaborated with fellow artist Qendrim Hoti to fashion two ball gowns using Vince Carter Raptors jerseys. Her work at the ROM, entitled Untitled (No Fields), responded to the American football players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. At the opening, a model wearing African wax-print football pads and heavy chains took a knee.
But to say Mohamoud’s work consistently deconstructs athleticism would be incorrect. Several previous pieces have made no mention of sports, but her focus on black bodies and racial prejudices is unwavering. In one of her most overtly political installations, 2016’s 99 Problems (By Default), black sheets of paper appear blank, but up close reveal the names of 99 unarmed black men killed in the United States by police officers.
Mohamoud grew up in London, Ontario as one of five kids. “London people were afraid of blackness,” she says. She spoke Arabic at home, and identifies as Afro-Arab. Like many children of immigrants, she felt pressure to succeed in a conventional career, and promised her parents she would attend law school. She lied. Mohamoud graduated in 2016 with her Master’s from OCAD University. “I wanted to be a lawyer for my parents,” she says, “but I wanted to be an artist more.”
Her rapid success hasn’t come without its pitfalls. One morning in July 2017, she awoke to find around 400 death threats in her Twitter feed. A picture of One of the Boys had infuriated people. They accused her of slandering the sports hero Vince Carter, and turning people gay. “Black masculinity is fascinating to me,” says Mohamoud. “It’s both fragile and so strong.” It was ironic because discomfort surrounding gender fluidity and black masculinity was one of the reasons she had made the piece. “I was so scared [of making the piece],” says Mohamoud. “I grew up with black guys, I knew the reaction I was going to get.”
After taking a brief break from Twitter, Mohamoud returned and responded to each threatening tweet with a link to her Instagram account. Part of her post read: “I hope you take the time to reflect upon your own views and progress towards a healthy understanding of difference and equality. And if you don’t and you’re still mad, all I have to say is: stay mad, baby.”